by Craig Thomas
As Marvel’s The Avengers continues to break box office records and has received (almost) universal critical acclaim (see Samuel L. Jackson’s Twitter tirade against the NY Times film critic for one of the few exceptions), it’s amazing to think that it is only the director’s second big screen effort. It’s even more amazing when you discover three out of four of the shows he made for TV were cancelled and his big screen debut, despite widespread critical acclaim, failed to recoup its budget at the box office. That film was Serenity, and this is its story.
Serenity is the big screen adaptation of the much loved (and much cancelled) TV show, Firefly. Lasting a mere 14 episodes, shown at no particular time and in no particular order (the first episode was the last to air, three didn’t even make it that far) nevertheless found a home on DVD. If you’ve not seen the TV show, I would recommend watching it first (mainly because it’s awesome) but is in no way vital to understanding or thoroughly enjoying this film. Despite being an opportunity to tie things up after cancellation, it still manages the difficult task of successfully appealing to its hardcore fan-base as well as the casual viewer, making it both a vital part of the canon as well as a great stand-alone feature in its own right.
Simply put, it’s a sci-fi western. There is a lot of back story, including the destruction of the earth, the colonization of another solar system and a war of independence between the sinister central government and the pioneers on the frontier-esque outer planets, all of which is explained at the very beginning of the film so that a child could understand, literally.
We then move to a laboratory where Alliance scientists are performing experiments on River Tam (played by Summer Glau) who we learn has psychic abilities. She is rescued by her brother, Dr Simon Tam (played by Sean Maher). We are then introduced to the man brought to bring her (and the secrets she may have) back to the Alliance, a shadowy figure known as the Operative (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a mild-mannered killer with his own particular code of honour. Here the events are set in motion, which drive the rest of the film.
When we are introduced to Serenity for the first time, a Firefly-class spaceship to which River and Simon escape, we are taken on a four-minute, one shot tour and meet the ship’s ragamuffin crew as they prepare for the next job and try not to crash at the same time. There’s Captain Mal Reynolds (played by Nathan Fillion), the pilot, Wash (played by Alan Tudyk), second-in-command and Wash’s wife Zoe (played by Gina Torres), the gun-loving muscle-for-hire in the form of Jayne (played by Adam Baldwin), and the mechanic Kaylee (played by Jewel Staite), as well as Simon and River. During this one shot we get a feel for each of the characters and their relationship to Mal.
That’s a lot of characters to be sure, but this is very much (in the words of writer/director Joss Whedon) Mal’s story told through River’s eyes.
Being based on a TV show and having a director whose only experience is directing for TV, it does at times feel like a feature length episode. Which is not to say it’s a bad thing, giving a sense of continuity and familiarity that fans of the TV show will appreciate, but it will probably be more of an issue with newcomers.
The CGI effects are good, but do have a kind of homemade feel to them and have you wishing they could have spent a bit more money to make them seamless, but that is nitpicking in quite a major way. Even so, this is not a film that would benefit from being seen in an IMAX cinema. That said, the epic battle scene in space is done very well and is very much for the big screen.
The script is excellent, being dramatic and moving, but never losing its sense of humour, even during the darkest moments. There’s more genuinely funny lines here than you find in most comedies which is not surprising given Whedon started his career writing for the TV sitcom Rosanne and such language has permeated his entire catalogue of work from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Toy Story (for which he was nominated for an Oscar).
To a man (and woman) the performances are spot-on, which is no surprise to fans of the show. Yet special note should be made of performances by Nathan Fillion who has to play a much darker version of Mal than fan are used to, and Chiwetel Ejiofor whose brutal, yet never malicious character is truly one of science fictions great villains (think Hannibal Lecter killing out of duty rather than pleasure).
Unusually, the director’s commentary is also worthy of a mention. Forgoing the usual time-filling anecdotes about funny things that happened during filming, Whedon sticks almost entirely to the technical aspects. Camera angles, choice of lens, story structure and why some scenes were included and why others were cut are all covered (even the deleted scenes have commentary), providing an invaluable insight to the film-making process. Yet it is never dull, for Whedon is (like Kevin Smith of Clerks, Chasing Amy, Dogma fame) a born raconteur.
If you are a fan of sci-fi or westerns then this is a film you must see. If you’re not a fan of either genre this is still a film you must see. Like all his best work, this is a film about characters, about people facing their demons (literally and metaphorically), but with fighting and explosions. Made on a relatively modest budget the team work wonders to create an enjoyable and engaging work and you can’t help but wonder how great it could have been with an Avengers-sized wad of cash.
Whilst it may be forever overshadowed by the success of Marvel’s The Avengers and the giant projects that should now inevitably fall into his lap, for many Whedonites this is the film against which everything else is measured, and rightly so.
Serenity is available on Blu-ray and DVD.